Elden Ring: A punishing journey into uncharted gameplay and rewarding exploration
To the point then. The first thing that strikes you is how smoothly Elden Ring operates, especially considering it's three months before the premiere. It loads faster on an old PS4 Slim than Bloodborne did on its release day. There are occasional bugs, traditional frame rate dips common in From Software games, and the occasional bout of camera madness. However, this is a beta. Considering this, the output is still remarkable.
Could the Japanese developers possibly be considering delivering a functioning and sensibly optimized game on release day, rather than spending the subsequent six months bringing it to a manageable state? The small sample we have gives us cause for optimism.
"They will fight and they will die"
This is a line from the trailer. It pertains to us, the players. The Soulsborne genre involves learning from the repetitions of death, and Elden Ring is no different. From Software has made an effort to appeal to both seasoned enthusiasts and those gamers who have been turned away by the high level of difficulty, through the introduction of some new conveniences.
This aspect is crucial because if players can't adapt to the combat system as presented in games like Sekiro and Bloodborne, they're unable to continue playing. With Elden Ring, the studio has made more of an effort to accommodate the players.
There's more freedom: we're given a choice of several character classes and a more generous inventory limit, and in most situations, there are several viable solutions. However, as with its precursors, a mistake in judgement or execution will conclude with the austere "YOU DIED" screen.
A major novelty is the diversified and multifaceted combat system. Melee and ranged weapons are available, we can sneak amid tall grass, akin to Sekiro, or confront evildoers head-on. Each type of weapon features its unique modifiers (applied with "Ashes of War"), in addition to special moves, spells and the classic parry mechanic which facilitates a devastating counterattack.
We are offered five character classes, each of which can, in addition to its own unique abilities, summon spirits with spells acquired while exploring the game world. This could be a single entity, a full group or, for instance, a squad of wolves.
Another innovation is the ability to move and fight while mounted. This element shares some commonality with the summoning of spirits - both new elements certainly need some adjustments. They're currently poorly balanced, providing too much advantage compared to unaided or on-foot combats.
Perhaps shortening the balance bar while riding might help? Or perhaps the helper sharing a portion of the health bar with our character? From Software has accustomed players to an incredible attention to detail, and one can only hope that they'll take similar caution in addressing these gameplay balance issues.
Relatedly, this is the year 2021, and I believe we gamers deserve more than the repeated 1:1 respawn of enemies every time we revisit a location, especially in a game that is, at least in theory, a sandbox.
Those unfamiliar with earlier games produced by this Japanese studio may find it revolutionary to have included elements such as a map, an open world, a crafting system, the ability to jump, horseback movement, and the clear direction pointers. These new features work to guide players from the confining souls corridors to a more expansive open world.
The world presented is stunning and vast, encouraging exploration. It includes an ingenious environmental clue system, caravan raids, villain camps, and a massive world where you're in total control of your own destiny. While such aspects have been present in previous games, there's no doubt that Elden Ring has its unique identity.
Sandbox or enclosed?
The decision by From Software to move away from their meticulously designed levels to implement an open world has been quite controversial. Some of the most memorable moments in prior installments of Dark Souls or Bloodborne came from opening a gate or extending a ladder, creating a shortcut between phenomenally distant points.
This demonstrated the studio's ingenuity in their vertical approach to level design. The pace of gameplay from "fire to fire" without any save option between checkpoints seemingly justified a level of difficulty that often bordered on, and quite frequently exceeded, frustration.
So how does Elden Ring, the studio's first sandbox game, resolve this? By innovatively creating a sandbox with a difference. The game world is impressive in scale and appears have its own life, yet its openness is somewhat conventional. It's as if Miyazaki married several separate areas of traditional, linear Souls design with a shared open-space region (charmingly termed Lands Between).
While each area is a journey towards a boss of suitable stature, whose demise is necessary to complete the level, the Lands Between are peppered with endearing locations and minor bosses. Whether this constitutes a real sandbox or a clever escape by From Software by combining several of their standard "corridor themes" into one collective entity is something only time will reveal. However, currently, it seems more of the latter.
The purpose of Network Test is primarily to assess the readiness of servers for volumes of players - a term that isn't exaggerated considering the number of player engagement reports. Although my personal attempts at multiplayer were relatively short, I did join other players in their confrontations with enemies a few times. However, from these limited experiences, the integrated modes seem to work as they should. While the presence of live players can break immersion for some, others enjoy the shared dying experience and have every reason to expect a smooth playing experience.
Just a few hours into my experience with Elden Ring, and I have barely scratched the surface. It might seem like Hidetaka Miyazaki aims to serve us a compilation of greatest hits, with a few new tracks and rarities mixed in. But it seems that he doesn't want to stop at just summarizing the Souls series and encapsulating the studio's style. Hence, Elden Ring also takes the studio's mechanics into uncharted waters.
That doesn't mean that the game will charm those players who were unconvinced by From Software's previous offerings. The game is punishingly difficult, with enemies that hit with the might of a crashing eighteen-ton weight. You can only rely on, at best, your good timing in executing jumps and rolls to evade attacks.
Thus, the conclusion may come as a surprise - fans of Miyazaki can confidently place their pre-orders (as they've probably already done). The others can try out the game at a friend's place or sign up for the upcoming beta #2 (which, according to Bandai Namco's website, is forthcoming). Elden Ring is a quintessential example of a From Software game, and although it's a sibling to Dark Souls with its own personality, it doesn't stray too far from its origin.
Played and thoroughly died by Michał Stachura.